Olympus E-500, the Next Generation?

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

This is not a review, of the Olympus E-500 SLR — rather a comparison of its features and specifications against the current E-300 (and, less directly, the E-1).

For full details refer to my E-500 review.

In a surprising move, in September of 2005 Olympus announced a new digital SLR, the E-500. Why surprising? Look: at that moment their previous DSLR, the E-300, was on the market for less than a year, and everyone rather expected a successor to the pro-grade E-1, especially now, with so much of premium glass available for the E-System.

Well, perhaps Olympus is aiming for the segment of the market where most of the money is. Maybe they felt the successor to E-1 needs more development time, maybe they wanted to capitalize on the Christmas shopping rush — it's for them to know and for us to keep guessing.

Anyway, the E-500 is here, and the first question many of us will have is how it compares to its predecessor, the E-300 (which I like a lot, after having used it for a year).

(Picture by Olympus)

Warning: this is a long article; before you really start reading, get yourself a cup of coffee (or a mug of beer, preferably ale or stout) and switch into something comfortable. Consider yourself warned.

The obvious: the new body

Olympus decided to go for an entirely new body in the E-500, as opposed to re-using that of the E-300. This is costly, as it involves serious re-tooling of the manufacturing facilities, so this is not an easy decision to make. Three explanations, not necessarily exclusive, are possible:

  • The new body can be manufactured less expensively;

  • The E-300 non-standard layout was hindering some planned new features or improvements;

    Here we can only guess. Still, I believe that the non-orthodox viewing system in the E-300, while reducing the camera's height, seriously adds to its length, also taking internally more room (longer path of mirror movement, more mirrors needed to route the image from the groundglass to the eyepiece).

  • The market, for no apparent reason, prefers the traditional pentaprism hump.

    Why do you think many EVF cameras try to look like SLRs?

One noticeable difference is in the size and weight: at 435 g (body, no battery) the E-500 weighs about 150 g less than the E-300; at 130 x 95 mm (WxH) it is 16 mm less wide than the E-300, while the pentaprism makes it 10 mm taller (still 11 mm less tall than the E-1, which was just too big for my taste). If you exclude the pentaprism (sorry, the pentamirror!) housing, the body height is less than that of the E-300.

This looks like a very handy size to me; close to the Pentax *ist D (125 x 93 mm) at only 5 mm and 2 mm larger dimensions. I'm also glad Olympus was able to get rid of the left-hand protrusion of the body.

The bodies of E-300 and E-500 compared. Picture by Olympus.

Obviously, the existing power grips will not be usable with the new camera. There is no power grip option for the E-500, and I'm not missing it.

While the E-300 body was made of polycarbonate plastic, it had a metal frame inside, plus an aluminum top cover. A similar frame is used in the E-500, but it looks thinner and smaller, at least on pictures provided by Olympus. Most probably, a weight-cutting measure.

The feel and finish of the E-500 are good, although not at par with the E-300. The significant reduction in weight did not make the camera the E-500 to have a feel similar to Canon and Nikon offerings in the sub-$1000 price range. The new model also has the nicely rubberized, easy to grip surfaces almost like those in the E-300.

Other major new features

The new camera has a number of new features, easy to miss when reading the specifications. Let me first focus on those which I consider of most importance for an advanced amateur user. The list is not necessarily in order of importance.

  • Multi-segment metering. The E-500 uses a system with 49 light-sensing areas. While Olympus never published the relevant data on the E-1 and E-300, I suspect those cameras were using a two-area sensor (center and overall).

    Most of competing SLRs have been using some form of matrix metering (from 7 to 256 segments) for some time; Olympus is just joining the trend.

    For an advanced user this feature may not be of primary importance; it should, however, offer better protection from burned-out highlights in everyday use (I wasn't able to see any improvement here, though). It also looks better in the specs.

    While pattern (ESP), center-weighted, and spot-metering modes have been retained, the averaging algorithms, obviously, had to be completely reworked, now based on a different number of inputs. (For a number of years I kept saying that "ESP" means nothing, or "whatever we do, we call it ESP". Olympus used this acronym for a number of very different designs since the film era.)

    Interestingly, there are two pattern metering modes in the E-500: "ESP" and "ESP+AF". In the latter, more emphasis is put on the area around the AF sensor used. Frankly speaking, I am still not sure if this mode is actually useful.

    The spot metering has two additional modes: highlight and shadows. You point the spot meter at a given area of the subject and say: "this is what I want to be a highlight (bright but not burned-out)". I can easily live without this; using a spot meter and exposure compensation is faster, more accurate, and more controllable: "put the white shirt of the subject at +3EV" instead of "put it at whatever Olympus thinks is the highlight, even if they never say what it exactly is" .

  • Larger LCD monitor. The new monitor is 64 mm diagonally (compared against 46 mm in previous E-System models). More importantly, the resolution also increases from 135,000 to 215,000 pixels (or rather RGB sub-pixels, as per the industry's misleading way of quoting this specification).

    As we can see, the 94% increase in the monitor area is accompanied by 59% more pixels — that's better than in models which just increase the monitor size but not the resolution. The data display and image preview are about 30% more detailed, a welcome improvement, pixels themselves also being slightly bigger. The impact of almost doubling the area on power usage (backlighting!) does not seem to be too painful.

    Larger display can be viewed from a larger distance; people with middle-aged vision will be happy to see that, but everybody will like the bigger, brighter, and sharped display, as compared to the E-300 or E-1.

  • White balance adjustment in two dimensions: Like the E-1 and E-300, the E-500 offers a wide range of adjustments, including the "reference" setting which was so well implemented in the previous Olympus cameras.

    What is, however, quite new, is adding another dimension in the fine-tweaking of image color. In addition to the traditional Red/Blue shift (roughly equivalent to accommodating for the black-body color temperature of the light source), the E-500 adds the adjustment in the Green/Magenta plane.

    This is not just another technical detail. When postprocessing my images, I can usually accept some shifts in color temperature; our eye seems quite tolerant to these, and the result is just "warmer" or "colder". The Green/Magenta shifts are, however, more painful and difficult to accept.

    My E-300 review, as enthusiastic as it is, was possibly the only one signaling the camera's occasional Auto WB problems in the Green/Magenta plane. Looks like Olympus came to the same conclusion; adding this option to manual settings also suggests that it has been provided internally in the Auto-WB regimen.

    Even considering that best results are achieved by using manual WB, i.e., one of the available presets, the Green/Magenta adjustment may come handy.

    Of course, the in-camera white balance settings become irrelevant if you are saving your pictures as raw image files.

Dual battery standard

Yes, you've heard me right! Now you can have it both ways:

  • The proprietary 1500 mAh BLM-1 Li-Ion, rechargeable battery pack. At 10.8 Wh (watt-hours, or Joules) of energy storage, it has proven itself in the C-5060/7070WZ, E-1, and E-300: all these cameras were getting excellent battery life. The proprietary battery, however, is hard to replace in emergency, unlike the rechargeable NiMH AA's (whose capacities improve every year).
  • Three standard lithium CR123A (or CR123, or equivalent) batteries, when used with the proper holder (LBH-1, optional on some markets, like in the States, included on others).

The nominal voltage of the BLM-1 is 7.2 V, that of the CR123 — 3V. This means you need three CR123's in series to feed the camera.

The LBH-1 holder fits inside the camera's battery compartment and it takes three CR123's. More, it does fit into that compartment in other Olympus cameras designed for the BLM-1, including E-1 and E-300 (Olympus warns against using this power source in any other cameras, so we cannot be sure if it is safe with the C-5060/7070WZ).

There is also a rechargeable version of CR123, based on the Li-Ion chemistry and providing the voltage of about 3.2 V. The bad news is that these have only about 700 mAh charge; a set of three stores about 6.7 Wh of energy (or 5.3 Wh if you assume that the excess voltage is wasted; possibly anything in-between). On the practical front, CR123 chargers accept either one or two batteries, but not three: another hassle. Besides, after having done my homework on rechargeable RCR-V3's, I would feel better when RCR-123's become available from a major manufacturer.

I'm sticking to the BLM-1, having bought the LBH-1 holder just in case of running out of juice in one BLM-1 when another one dies, or my charger goes to the angels while I'm on a two-week vacation in Peru. Last time I looked, disposable CR123's were stocked in most drugstores and even at National Park System souvenir stores. Reassuring.

Other improvements

In addition, the E-500 includes a number of lesser tweaks and improvements; some of them are features which, while present in the E-1, were stripped down from the E-300 to make it less competitive against the Olympus flagship model. Here is a list, as incomplete as it may be.

  • Dual card slots: CompactFlash and xD-Picture. I do not know why, but I always liked this in Olympus cameras. I know this is of secondary importance, but it used to give me some extra sense of confidence, being able to switch from one card to another, or to copy images between them. E-1 and E-300 gave up on this feature, now it is back.
  • Built-in flash: The specs put it at GN 13 m (E-300 was specified at GN 11), that's 40% increase in light output. While the internal flash is not even a semi-serious option for flash shooting (that's why it was not present in the E-1), it may be sometimes useful for daylight fill-in.
  • New eyecup: It is named EP-5, and it is much better than the EP-3 on the E-300 (which should not be so difficult). An optional, larger EP-6 is also available, and I like it even more. The EP-4 eyepiece cover, however, remains unchanged from the E-300, and this is bad.

    Olympus also offers an optional eyepiece magnifier, the ME-1, enlarging the viewfinder image by 20%. That's good, especially with the E-500 finder image being 10% smaller than that in the E-300 (see below).

    The good news for E-300 owners is that the new eyecups and magnifier also work with that camera. See also a separate article on E-300/E-500 finder accessories.

  • Color modes: Vivid, Natural and Muted (in addition to B&W and Sepia options). We may think of this as of using three different kinds of slide film, one providing extra punch appealing to the mass market one more natural, and one toned down (perhaps better skin tones?). One more setting for tweakers to experiment with.

    Interestingly, contrast, sharpness, saturation, and gradation are adjusted (and memorized) independently for each of these three modes.

  • Custom modes: The camera allows you to set up three of your own "My mode" arrangement of settings and switch to any of them. This is a feature I really liked on the C-5050Z and C-5060WZ. Unfortunately, the custom modes do not have their own slots on the mode dial — you have to use the menu system, or to re-assign the Reference WB function to this.

    I believe that using the separate mode wheel positions for the custom modes would be a better solution. These positions could be freed by giving up the slots used by "scene modes"; the latter are not all accessible anyway; most require going through the menu which makes the system inconsistent and redundant.

  • AF/AE lock: The way in which the lock button and shutter release work in terms of exposure and focus locking can be now set to user preferences, like in the E-1; a feature stripped from the E-300. I'm really glad to see this back.
  • Focus bracketing: When in manual focus mode (ZD lenses only!), the camera may shoot a sequence of five or seven frames, tweaking the focus a bit from your manual setting. Two different focus step values can be used.

    This feature can also be easily used in conjunction with autofocus, see another article.

  • RGB component histograms: While the luminance histogram is a useful feature in post-analysis of images, being able to see the brightness distribution for individual color layers is nothing to sniff at: it allows to detect clipping in an individual RGB component. A critical user may find this a valuable addition.

    Take a deeply-saturated, purplish flower. The overall luminance may be in control, driven mostly by the green component, but the red and blue ones will often be heavily clipped (overloaded), making the flower just a color blob without any detail. Detecting such an overload in individual components, even after the picture is taken, allows you to correct the exposure and re-shoot.

  • Highlight and shadow warning: While an image is reviewed, the areas with loss of detail in highlights or shadows will blink to warn you about possible exposure problems. The E-300 had this feature for highlights only and it was sometimes useful, as small out-of-range areas are not visible in the histogram. These two features are available (one at a time) by switching the display mode.
  • Noise filtering at higher ISOs: Like in the E-300, the basic ISO settings extend only up to ISO 400; higher ones (800 and 1600) can be made optionally accessible; I suspect they are achieved not by adjusting the CCD gain but in the in-camera postprocessing of the signal.

    While ISO 800 in the E-300 is usable, ISO 1600 — barely so, very noisy. To address that, Olympus is providing an option to use more aggressive random noise filtering (this is not the same as fixed noise reduction by dark frame subtraction!) at these "extended" settings.

  • ISO setting can now be adjusted in 1/3 EV increments. Not that I consider this a big deal, just for the record. More importantly, you can now set the upper limit how far the camera will raise the ISO in the program mode, if the auto-ISO option is used.
  • Maximum viewed image magnification has been increased to 14x (from 10x in the E-300). This makes image review useful (or almost useful) in sharpness evaluation.
  • A panic mode, marked as "Auto" on the mode dial sets everything to defaults. It may be useful in emergencies, or when the camera is being used by a person without a clue of what he/she is doing.
  • The battery latch inside the battery compartment is back. Used in the '5060/7070 and E-1, it was missing in the E-300. It makes your (expensive) battery more secure and less prone to a sudden death by falling out.

Improved controls

I am nicely surprised: all changes in this department seem to be for the better, and many address my complaints about the E-300. This time somebody really did their homework. While the basic "push a button and turn the wheel" metaphor has been retained, the button assignment and arrangement is improved. Skip over this section if you are not really interested in details.

Here is the camera's back. hosting all controls except for the mode dial (with the on/off switch lever) and the exposure compensation button. The dials are slightly tilted back, like on the E-1.

While the "Hyper Crystal LCD" logo serves no purpose, the layout of the buttons is logical; details are given below.

The cursor key cluster looks identically to that on the C-5060/7070WZ. It does not look as robust at that in the E-300, but should serve its purpose just fine.

(Picture by Olympus)
  • The exposure compensation button, because of its unique character, has been moved so that it cannot be confused with anything else: next to the shutter release. It can be re-assigned to program shift if you wish so.
  • The newly freed place on the up-arrow has been assigned to the white balance, moved over from the left of the screen, more logical.
  • The reference white balance can be now activated directly, without going through the menu. That's what I was asking for. This button can be reassigned to another function if you do not use this feature often. I do.
  • Hallelujah! The flash exposure adjustment is now available directly by pressing simultaneously the exposure compensation and flash mode buttons. (This feature, available in some Olympus non-SLR cameras, was stripped off the E-300.) If you use the fill flash outdoors, you will appreciate this.
  • The [OK] button is now at the center of the arrow pad. Another of my complaints about the E-300: now there is no need to move your right hand when confirming a menu choice.
  • Instead of randomly assigned five identical buttons at the left, there are four now, all used for menu and preview functions. The fifth, top one has a different shape and is used for the flash control. While I still would prefer to have the flash button to have a more distinct placement, the new arrangement is better than the old one.
  • Instead of a separate, mechanical button to pop up the flash, an electric one is used for that and also for switching between flash modes. In the idiot-proof Auto mode the flash will pop up by itself.
  • A dedicated drive button switches between the remote, self-timer, and drive modes.

It seems that Olympus has addressed all my complaints about control layout and assignment. Overall, not a very visible, but a very thoughtful job.

New, but not so important

Today's market pays attention to the sheer number of features, often regardless of how useful they may be. The manufacturers are tempted to add things of tertiary importance, just to look better on paper, to a casual reader.

Obviously, this may be to some extent a matter of taste, but not entirely so. Here I'm listing those "improvements" which, in my opinion at least, are of minimum importance or usability, so that you can decide.

  • Monochrome modes with filters: In the process of conversion from raw to a JPEG file, the image can be also converted to monochrome: B&W, sepia or tinted (red, green or blue). In each case you can apply a firmware "filter" (red, orange, yellow or green), resulting in different monochrome rendition of various colors.

    While this may look attractive I consider it to be not very useful. Monochrome conversion is better made in postprocessing, when you have more control over it, and adjusting individual color layers allows you to emulate the effects of various filters applied to a monochrome photo.

    A real filter on your lens works differently: it may prevent a given color channel from overloading. A "filter" applied in the firmware or postprocessing, however, is applied to an already captured raw image; the overloading, if any, already happened and it is too late to fix it.

    The feature may be of some help to the most inexperienced users, who do not postprocess their images, but this also is the group least likely to use it at all.

  • Scene modes: the number was increased from 14 to 15; all are available from the menu system (Olympus refers to that as "Scene Select", and four — also directly from the mode dial ("Scene Programs"). The difference is that in the latter mode you can adjust some parameters, while in the former this is not possible. The adjustment was not possible in the E-300 at all.

    The mixed approach to scene mode switching is inconsistent and confusing. I would prefer to access all of them from the menu, and use the freed room on the dial for the user-defined modes.

    Switching between scene modes, with small pictures illustrating each, serves no real purpose except offending my intelligence ("yeah, I'm a moron, you have to show me what candlelight is"). I'm getting used to that, however; give me another ten years.

    Anyway, discussing the scene modes is just a waste of time. If you need them, buy a point-and-shoot camera, or one of the "superzoom" EVF ones.

Unchanged from the E-300

First of all: Olympus sticks to the Four Thirds lens/sensor standard. Of course.

I consider this to be a major advantage of the E-System; this is the just the right sensor size, and the 4:3 aspect ratio is better than the 3:2 one, inherited from 35-mm film cameras (where it was introduced by accident back in 1926, by merging two movie frames of 4:3 aspect).

A 3:2 frame has to be cropped to fit into any standard, or generally pleasing, print format (except for the drugstore 4x6"), at the expense of about 15% of pixels thrown away, and some loss to wide-angle lens capability — and remember the big bucks you pay for every millimeter shaved off your lens' focal length.

While using the 4/3 standard is a given, some other features from older models have been retained, for good or bad. Here is a partial list.

  • Ultrasonic dust remover. This, indeed, works very well. I have been using an E-300 for almost a year now, and I still have to see any sensor dust in my monthly check (a clear-sky shot). No brushes, air pumps, voodoo sticks, or re-branded cosmetic applicators at $10 apiece.

    Some other manufacturers, which would not admit any dust problem before, started recently introducing this feature. Why to address a problem which does not exist?

  • Full-frame Transfer CCD. Contrary to what some makers want us to think, CMOS sensors have higher intrinsic noise, and this has to be handled by rather intense in-camera signal processing. This comes not without a price. The CCD in the E-500 is the same 8 MP KAF-8300CE from Kodak, offering larger sensitive photosite area than inline CCDs. Once again — less in-camera massaging of the signal to make the image presentable.

    Interestingly, many people are still confusing the pixel pitch (i.e. the spacing between two photosites in the same row or column) with pixel size (linear dimensions of a single photosite). They are roughly, but not 100% correlated; an APS-C sensor (15% larger along the shorter frame dimension) will have a larger pixel pitch than a Four Thirds sensor with the same pixel count, but not necessarily larger pixel size, as this depends also on the fill ratio.

  • JPEG compression: selectable as 1:12 (economy), 1:8 (standard), 1:4 (HQ) and 1:2.7 (SHQ). I consider this a good choice, and Olympus is quite conservative in naming these settings. The Economy setting is new in this model.

    For comparison, the Canon EOS 350D uses two compression settings, named Fine (1:6) and Normal (1:11). The Nikon D50 allows for three settings; Fine (1:5), Normal (1:9), and Basic (1:17), obviously more objective naming than Canon's.

  • Raw color depth: 12 bits per RGB component, like in the E-300. I was hoping to see 14 BPC, but this, obviously, is the matter of sensor circuitry used.
  • Sensor gain control: ISO 100-400, see above. The E-500 is not going to become an overnight low-light champion, but the signal is not as heavily processed as in other cameras.
  • Image conversion adjustment: sharpness, contrast, saturation, gradation (high-key, normal, low-key). No changes here, but they are adjusted and memorized independently in various color modes (Vivid, Normal, Muted).
  • Sequential shooting: 2.5 fps; at 1:8 compression the camera will keep up with image processing and writing until the card is full. This is not new: my E-300 can do that using a two-year old CF card.
  • Autofocus: Three sensors in a row; the selected one is highlighted in the finder. I like the latter feature, and the AF performance in the E-300 is good; don't mess with something that works. (I noticed that low-light AF is somewhat improved in the E-500.)
  • Shutter: Looks similar as in previous models; up to 1/4000 s. The low-end speed (non-program modes) has been extended to 60 s like in the E-1 (up from 30 s in the E-300); actually at these exposure times noise is the limiting factor.
  • External flash: Compatible with the Olympus FL-50, FL-36, and FL-20 dedicated units; a well-integrated system. The regular-mode high synchronization speed is 1/180 s; in the multi-burst (FP) mode flash pictures can be taken at any shutter speed (FL-36, FL-50).

    Unfortunately, none of these units are usable simultaneously with the internal flash, at least not when mounted in the camera's hot shoe. The built-in flash cannot raise, being mechanically blocked. (An early Q&A page by Olympus mistakenly claimed that the FL-36 will allow for the internal flash to be used, but this is not the case; maybe only when a flash bracket is used?)

    This is bad; using the built-in flash as a fill-in would be great, especially with adjustable flash ratio.

  • No B&W LCD status panel. Olympus decided to put the camera's top real estate to different use, and I tend to agree with them, in spite of my original reservations about the E-300. The LCD monitor Control Panel requires just one button press and contains more information, readable and well arranged. As a bonus, you may set it to two display modes (full or simplified, with just the more important information) and to two different color schemes.
  • The depth-of-field preview does not have its own, dedicated button. You can assign it to the button which by default is used for reference WB metering, but then you lose quick access to that functionality.

    I'm not really disappointed by this. DoF preview is of marginal use with small finders found on most digital SLRs; it is one of the features everyone wants and nobody uses later. I was using this a lot on film SLRs, but not on the E-300.

  • Viewfinder display: Its vertical orientation to the right of the screen made it almost useless in the E-300, at least for eyeglass wearers. This has been retained in the E-500.
  • USB 2.0 interface with 1.1 speed. The USB 2.0 standard calls this "USB 2.0 Full Speed" (which it is not!), and all camera makers follow this. This is the interface used in the E-300, the same as in older cameras.

    Let me repeat for the record: the "USB 2.0 Full Speed" is not what the name suggests; this is really the speed of USB 1.1 with the maximum transfer rate of 12 Mb/s (megabits per second) or 1.5 MB/s (megabytes per second). The real advantage of USB 2.0 is the "USB 2.0 High Speed" mode at 480 Mb/s, or 60 MB/s. The truth is, however, that the fastest CF cards provide, if I remember right, read speeds of about 8MB/s — about five times faster than USB 1.1, but eight times slower than USB 2.0 "High Speed". Actually, the camera circuitry may often be the transfer bottleneck, not the interface itself.

    I have to credit Olympus that they clearly state the 12 Mb/s speed in the specs; it is not their fault that the standard naming convention is misleading.

  • No flash socket. Another feature most of us can happily live without. For off-camera flash use there are a number of dedicated cables, allowing you to hook up such a unit (dedicated or not) to the camera's hot shoe.

Compromises and omissions

I'll skip the discussion of the size/weight versus cost versus sturdiness issue, as this is obvious and understandable. Let me just list a few compromises or omissions which are new to this model; ones inherited from the E-300 will be discussed in the next section.

  • Viewfinder magnification. The new image is 10% smaller than one in the E-1 and E-300 (or the competing models; for good comparison divide the claimed magnification value by the focal length equivalence ratio).

    Olympus justifies the decision with three reasons: (a) trying to keep the brightness up (indeed, with 10% less magnification you have 21% more brightness), (b) keeping the viewing system compact, and (c) keeping the finder aberrations in check. Take it or leave it.

  • Eye relief. This is the distance from the finder from which your eye can still see the whole area. I'm not sure how exactly it is measured, but the values by the same manufacturer should be directly comparable. For the E-500 this is quoted as 10 mm, as compared to 20 mm for the E-300. Actually, I do not see a difference between both cameras in this respect.
  • No external power. This is the first non-P/S camera by Olympus without a socket for an external power supply. With good battery life I'm not going to miss this feature at all, and skipping it saves room and money (your money).

Warts and all?

If you have read my detailed review of the E-300, you may have noticed that the E-500 addresses a number of minor gripes I had with that model. Here is my list of remaining issues, arranged more or less in decreasing order of importance.

  • Wired remote socket: I was very disappointed not to see it on the E-300 (being available only if you bought the extra battery grip/holder). This feature was listed in the early E-500 specs, has disappeared since. A painful omission.
  • Less aggressive random noise reduction. I know, this looks worse in report sheets and comparison reviews, but at least I would like to have this adjustable from the user preferences. I don't want to write raw files and use the $150 Olympus Studio to get things my way.

    As mentioned, the more aggressive reduction at the "additional" ISO settings can be turned off or on.

  • Program shift: It is still too easy to change by accident, and there is no quick way to jump straight back to default. You don't even know in which direction to turn the wheel!

    You can now assign the exposure compensation button to this function (swapping both), but this is just replacing one problem with another.

  • Time-lapse sequences. Is this feature, implementable entirely in firmware, really such a big thing?
  • Menu structure and readability: Although the system in E-1 and E-300 is mostly OK, for many settings I still cannot remember to which menu they belong. Luckily, in the E-500 you need the menus only to set your preferences, not for adjusting any of the shooting parameters.
  • Image quality/size setting. Olympus stubbornly sticks to the scheme I don't like too much: in one place you choose between SHQ, HQ, and SQ, and in another you define what HQ and SQ really mean. Still, if you set the latter option once and forever, then you can live with this approach.

The new "kit" lens: keeping the price down?

In a somewhat surprising move, on some markets Olympus sells the E-500 as a kit with a new, 17.5-45 mm, F/3.5-5.6 lens (this is the EFL of 35-90 mm). This looks like the low-end offering from Olympus, aimed at the bottom of the market, who would not appreciate the 28 mm (EFL) wide end of the 14-45 mm "economy" zoom. Certainly, the new lens must be less expensive to make; it is the wide end which costs.

Even with the expected price difference of $100 or less, I consider the 14-45 mm a better alternative.

Interestingly, the kit with the new lens has been announced only in the U.K. as the "SE" version. Our British friends are also able to buy two kits available in the States: one with the 14-45 mm, and another with two zooms (14-45 and 40-150 mm, both lenses surprisingly good for the money; this would be my choice), or, last but not least, the body alone.

Actually, from the commercial viewpoint the cheaper lens may be a smart move — as long as other options also remain available.

Who needs this camera?

One thing I'm not sure about is at what market is Olympus aiming the E-500. The possibilities are:

  • The enthusiast amateur market, advanced or not. Some of these people may want to get an E-300 because of the specs, some — for the creative capabilities and image qualities which, they hope, it will provide.
  • Professional or advanced photographers (these two classes may overlap but are not the same!) who either need a capable instrument at a budget price, or need a second, less expensive body for their E-1 (or its soon-to-come successor) and lenses. I know of a number of people who make their living in photography using the E-300 (some are still happy with the E-20) — after all, how much do you need weather-proofing in wedding or portrait studio applications?
  • The uninformed, not photography-literate mass market. Many of these are users who think that buying a "better" (more expensive, SLR) camera will bring them better pictures, and, oh boy, are they wrong! Olympus' aim at this market is suggested by some "user-friendly" features like scene modes.

It is difficult to cater to all three categories at once.

The first group is who wants all the bells and whistles (and who study resolution charts). They constitute majority of newsgroup participants and, judging from the email I'm receiving, most of the Readers of this site. The degree of photographic expertise in this group varies widely.

The second one just needs a reliable camera with generally good specs and easy access to the most important features; then they go by image quality (whatever it means). Some of this group might have heavily invested into legacy lenses, in which case they may be unwilling to switch brands.

The third category does not know or care: they just expect their pictures to be as good as the camera's star rating in one of the reviews; not a single person of that group lasted to this point of the article, so I can be frank here.

I believe the E-500 addresses best the needs of the first group, and this is the user profile on which Olympus should focus. This is not possible without gaining a nod of approval from the second group, as this is where the first one looks for any signs.

Olympus faces a tough choice between being the most innovative of digital camera makers (they should have introduced the GR-1, not Ricoh!), and trying to increase their market share, regaining its pieces from Canon, Nikon, or Sony. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile both goals — and the first one may even help in the second. This is, however, a highly speculative area' let's stick to technical issues.

Instead of conclusion

Since the original version of this article, I've used the E-500 a lot. Olympus has a real winner here.

I liked the E-1, even more the E-300; with all complaints I might have had, I considered them better than the direct competition from other makers. Of course, this is always arguable, but the results I've been getting for the last year from my E-300 were very satisfactory, and limited not by the camera, but by my skills as a photographer.

The image quality of the E-500 matches that of the E-300 (the same sensor and optics), and the camera has the right feel in the hand, with very good control interface, vastly improved from the E-300 or E-1. It clearly looks like a very attractive choice, a tough act for other makers to match. It may or may not become a market success, as the market is not always driven by the virtues of the product, but it will certainly gain a dedicated and enthusiastic following, even if a minority one.

If you are new to digital SLRs, and want to decide if to jump on that bandwagon, do not hesitate; this is a good point to start from. If you already have an E-1 or E-300, there seems to be no urgent need to get their new sibling, unless you need a second body.

The E-500 may be a good choice for a semi-serious photographer like myself: it is much lighter and smaller than I expect the E-2(?) to be, and it will save me enough money to buy at least one of the better 4/3 lenses I'm so salivating upon.

Web references

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Posted 2005/09/25; last updated 2006/10/02 Copyright © 2005 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak